Survivors: We're waiting for justice
The elderly men sat in the foyer of the Jerusalem District Court building, clutching documents, some frayed at the edges and all yellowed with age.
They survived the Holocaust while most - or all - of their families perished in German-occupied Europe six decades ago. They built new lives in Israel, and now they are in their 70s and 80s.
On Wednesday, the men were in court as a NIS 300 million lawsuit was filed by the Company for the Restitution of Holocaust Victims Assets against Bank Leumi, over assets that the group says belong to thousands of Holocaust victims and their heirs.
The bank has rejected the claims as baseless.
"We are waiting for justice," said Antwerp-born David Hillinger, 73, of Petah Tikva.
Hillinger said his grandfather had invested £1,400 with the Anglo-Palestine Bank, the prestate precursor to Bank Leumi, in 1940, just weeks before Germany invaded Belgium.
"People could not escape from Europe, but thought that if they sent money they could receive a visa. But it was too late," he recounted.
While the family managed to escape to the south of France, his grandparents were arrested by French police and transported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.
After the war, Hillinger's father received a bank statement with his balance, but when he asked the Israeli Embassy in Brussels in the 1950s about the money, the response was that "Israel is a poor country, and could not help," he said.
After his father died in 1996, his mother sent the bank a letter inquiring about the account - which he said by today would be worth NIS 400,000 - but was told it did not exist, he recounted.
"We have all the papers that the account existed," Hillinger said.
He added that it was unconscionable that Swiss banks, and "even German banks" could return money to Jewish victims, but that an Israeli bank would balk at returning funds.
"Jews stealing money from Jews who died at Auschwitz; this I cannot accept," he said.
It is a wicked injustice that an Israeli bank is holding on to money that belongs to Holocaust survivors, some of whom are dying of hunger in Israel," said Menachem Ariav, chairman of the restitution organization. "We are not looking for charity; we are looking for what belongs to Holocaust survivors."
He added that Bank Leumi was acting in an "un-Jewish, un-Zionist, un-Israeli manner," and contrasted its actions with that of Bank Hapoalim, which is on the verge of reaching an agreement with the restitution group.
The amount of money invested with Bank Hapoalim and three other Israeli banks, however, is marginal compared to Bank Leumi, said Nadav Ha'etzni, an attorney for the organization.
The organization is planning similar suits against Mizrahi Bank, Discount Bank and Mercantile Discount Bank, Ariav said.
The legal action against Israel's second-largest bank follows years of fruitless negotiations to reclaim the funds that the restitution group said was deposited by Holocaust victims in more than 3,500 bank accounts before World War II.
"I am embarrassed in their name; they are acting like cold fish," said Shlomo Gonen, 70, of Kfar Saba, adding that he has documents that show that his Polish-born uncle, who was murdered by the Nazis, also deposited money with the bank.
In a largely symbolic move, Leumi transferred NIS 20m. to the restitution organization two years ago, even though the bank has asserted that it does not hold any funds or property belonging to Holocaust victims.
An internal report carried out for the bank by a retired Supreme Court justice concluded that the bank is not legally obliged to hand over to heirs money it had held for people who died in the Holocaust.
Bank Leumi has rejected the lawsuit as "baseless," and said that the lawsuit was initiated solely to cover up the restitution organization's own blunders and waste of public funds, including significant errors in identification of accounts, involving tens of millions of shekels.
The bank added that the amount being sought by the restitution company was not based on sums that had ever been in the bank, but represented interest calculations on assets that, in any case, had long ago either been transferred to the prestate British authorities or to Israel's custodian-general as unclaimed assets.
The Company for the Restitution of Holocaust Victims Assets was established by the Knesset three years ago in an effort to uncover and return the assets of Holocaust victims to their rightful heirs.
Property and assets that are not claimed will be used to help elderly Holocaust survivors in need.
About 250,000 survivors live in Israel, nearly a third of them in poverty.